The Blackberry Bushes

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A family of foxes learn how to grieve in a very human way.

Submitted: December 18, 2018

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Submitted: December 18, 2018

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The Blackberry Bushes

Thaddeus Lenk

We were foxes. Looking back on my life, I can say I loved that fact. In the summer we played and frolicked, roving around from one den to the next. In the fall we hunted. In the winter we survived, and in the spring we celebrated with carefree abandon. The times were feast or famine. I wouldn’t have asked for it any other way.

I was the oldest of my litter. I had two younger brothers, Skit and Mitch, and a younger sister, Joycie. Mom looked after us as best she could. I didn’t blame her for the mistakes she made. They were bound to happen.

Our home was nearly fifteen square miles, spanning several farms and a suburban neighborhood. We even ventured into town sometimes, but always in the dead of night. There were usually rats or mice scurrying in-between the back alleys and restaurants. I believed the town was called Tacoma Falls, though I couldn’t be certain, I’d never paid much attention to the humans living there or what they called themselves. I was just happy to follow Mom around as she led us hunting.

Joycie was more interested in the town’s humans. Occasionally I found her prowling the neighborhood in the dead of night looking into living rooms. She stared through their windows for hours, watching with a special sort of yearning in her eyes as the humans sat inside their well lit homes.

Skit and Mitch were more vocal. They liked to play pretend, imagining they were humans themselves. Skit was always orating, trying his hand at poetry or singing, pretending he was a famous philosopher giving a lecture. Mitch liked to play as a farmer, digging holes when he found the time for it.

I looked on at these antics with a paternal sort of charm. They were cute and fun. I imagined my siblings would eventually get bored of playing human when they grew up, but they never did. I thought that was endearing.

 

***

 

Mom passed away this spring. She’d gotten us through the hardest winter of our short lives. We mourned her as best we could. Mitch dug her grave and Skit gave her eulogy, Joycie found a discarded wreath and laid it on Mom’s burial mound. The moment was tender, the flowers in the fields around us were budding as the sun’s young, timid rays shone down on that lovely afternoon. We all cried and prayed.

I stood stoically and watched. There was nothing more I could’ve done. I could only hope Mom was in a better place.

 

***

 

The spring passed too quickly, as it tended to do. We found ourselves in the midst of summer, with the heat bearing down on us while the constant buzzing of cicadas filled the air. I was lounging in a nearby patch of forest, nestled within the blackberry bushes and watching the day go by when Joycie approached me. She looked shy, almost timid. That wasn’t like her. A purple bow was clutched in her teeth. It was the kind human girls wore around town, though it was stained with dirt. I thought the bow looked pretty in-between Joycie’s fangs.

“Brad, will you help me?” she asked, laying the bow down at my paws.

“What do you need?” I asked. I was half distracted. There were birds overhead, two bluejays and a sparrow. I was watching them flit across the trees.

She nudged the ground with her nose. “I wanna put the bow on. On my head, next to my ears.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure Skit and Mitch’ll be back with dinner soon.”

The bluejays seemed to be mocking the poor sparrow whose feathers were dull in comparison.

“What’re you talking about Brad?”

The sparrow was perched on the end of a branch. The two bluejays were above, looking down at the poor thing. It was so dreary looking with its brown feathers.

“Brad!”

Joycie butted her head against my neck, nuzzling her nose into my fur and biting me.

“What? What is it?” I asked, turning away from the sparrow and its tormentors.

“Will you help me put the bow on?”

She presented her head to me, her eyes downcast like she felt embarrassed.

“What for?”

“I want to feel pretty, and cute. I saw the girls wearing bows. I wanted to wear one too.”

“But why?”

“Does that matter?” She looked up at me, angry and impatient now. “I’m just asking you to help me. Don’t you want to help your little sister? You’re the older brother, that’s what you’re supposed to do—ever since Mom passed.”

She stumbled over those last few words, only realizing their horror after she spoke them. But I wasn’t bothered. Mom was gone and Joycie was right. It was my job now.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, head still bowed.

“Don’t be.”

I picked up the bow with my teeth and placed it on her head. The fabric felt odd against my tongue, and I was unable to tie the bow underneath her chin. Instead Joycie remained perfectly still, balancing the bow between her ears as she looked up at me. She asked if she looked like the schoolgirls who walked back and forth across Tacoma Falls.

I told her she did.

“Do you mean it? Like I could wear a skirt and shoes and everything?”

“I’m sure they’d be happy to have you at school.”

That got her smiling real big.

“Thank you Brad,” she said, turning around and walking slowly to the nearby pond. She wanted to look at herself, and I couldn’t blame her. She was growing up so fast. She looked just like Mom.

 

***

 

I found Mitch out in the wheat fields behind the Johnston’s property. He was digging holes, as was usual, but there was something wrong with them. Normally his holes were erratic and haphazard, but today I found him digging them in an orderly line, with each successive hole larger than the last. I asked him what he was doing. He looked up at me from behind a nose and claws that were caked with dirt.

He said, “I’m digging.”

“That’s apparent Mitch, but what’re you really doing? Since when do you dig like this?”

He didn’t answer, he just went back to his digging.

“Aren’t you scared Mr. Johnston is gonna see you out in his fields?” I asked.

“No way. I saw him load their family up in the sedan. They said they were taking a family vacation.”

“But they’re farmers, what do they need a vacation for?”

“Dunno, I guess they needed to relax right now. I heard their son say he was excited for the beach.”

Mitch kept digging as he talked, clumps of dirt and sod flinging out from behind his hind legs and into the air.

“Brad, do you think we should take a vacation?” he asked me.

“Do you think we need one?”

“I’m tired of hunting and foraging, and my paws hurt after I spend all day digging. I want to go somewhere where my paws stop hurting.”

“You could stop digging. Why don’t you join me in the blackberry bushes? We can lie down and watch the birds sing to each other.”

He turned his head and looked at me. He said, “But I gotta keep digging.”

“And why’s that?”

He jumped out of his hole, moving down the line and starting all over again.

“I’m pretending I’m getting the field ready for the Johnston’s crop.”

“But you’re not—you don’t have to do that.”

He ignored me, continuing to dig, putting his whole body into it grunting and growling and heaving from the effort. He dove into his work with such a fury that I worried for him. I wanted to help, but this was Mitch’s favorite thing. It would be as if I stole Joycie’s bow. This was for him to do.

I sat on my haunches and watched him work. The day was still nice, and it was true the Johnston family was gone. For now we were safe in their fields.

“I’m doing it for Mom,” Mitch said.

I had a feeling that was the case. He was digging Mom’s grave over and over again, trying to do right by her.

“Do you think she’s proud of me?” he asked.

I told him I was sure she was.

 

***

 

I crept up on my toes, my legs arched high and my tail standing upright as I stalked away from the Johnston’s farmstead. I was hungry and I smelled a family of mice living about a mile away, all of them juicy and crunchy, scurrying around inside their little den just waiting for me to pounce. They smelled delicious. Their tiny bellies and their chewy tails were calling to me, and I picked up the pace as I crept through the underbrush. I drooled. They were close now and smelled so sweet. My ears perked up. I was lost in the thrill of the hunt. In the distance there was a low murmuring, like a mournful yowl, but I didn’t pay it much mind. I was focused solely on my prey. Their den was right in front of me, separated by a particularly thick bush. They were scampering mindlessly around each other, blissfully unaware of my gleaming fangs and sharp claws.

My muscles tightened, I was about to pounce. Every sense of my being was prepared to kill. I loved it.

But that murmuring yowl turned into a high-pitched yelp. It was a yelp I recognized, sending the mice scattering into the forest. I dropped my head and watched them escape into the underbrush. I was too tired to give chase. And of all days too. But, that was fine. I turned tail and followed the yelping to a nearby clearing. Skit was standing in a puddle in the middle of the clearing. His paws were stained with dirt and he balanced on his hind legs, showing himself bare to the forest. He was orating in his mournful, off-tempo yowling, the poor thing. He seemed so dissatisfied with life. And this was his favorite clearing, his favorite place of respite from the world. I should’ve known better than to hunt so close to his favorite spot.

He paused his yowling, noticing me. He returned to all fours as I approached.

“Brad, what’re you doing here?” he asked.

“I’m hunting.”

“Oh.”

Skit was soft spoken, hesitant and afraid. His confidence only showed when he was orating in complete isolation.

“What’re you talking about today?” I asked, taking a seat in front of him.

“Well—I,” he scratched his forehead with his paw. “I’m discussing the moon, and how lovely it looks hanging low over a clear night sky.”

“That sounds like a good talk.”

He smiled at me. I’d always been fond of Skit’s speeches. Joycie found them tedious, and Mitch saw no use in yelping about when you could be digging holes. Mom had liked listening to Skit speak.

“Do you want to hear it?” he asked.

I said I wanted to, but only if he wanted to share it with me.

“Well, I’m still working on the opening statements, and I don’t like the conclusion. And I—”

He trailed off. I nodded my head, urging him on.

“I’m scared everything doesn’t tie in together nicely and the words still feel clunky. I think I need to wait a while, at least until the full moon reappears.”

“Are you sure? I love listening to your speeches.”

He shook his head. “I want to work on it a little longer.”

“Okay.”

I understood completely. Mom was the only fox who Skit allowed to listen to his speeches as he practised them. But now Mom was gone, so there was no one to listen to his incomplete works. That hurt me. I wished I could find a way to ease his mind.

“I’m happy to listen Skit. Whenever you want me to.” I told him.

He said, “I know.”

I turned and left Skit alone. As I entered the underbrush I heard a low, murmuring yowl. At first the voice was hesitant, nervous, but quickly it gained confidence and grew into a powerful oration. I loved Skit. I didn’t think he was broken at all, and I wished he felt the same way.

 

***

 

I snuck over to the edge of Tacoma Falls hoping to find inspiration within the humans. I watched them eat at restaurants and walk across the sidewalks, and I wondered what Joycie saw in them. I wondered what Sam and Mitch saw in the humans too. My younger siblings imitated the humans, and I knew that secretly they wished they were human. But not me. I hung my head low and slunk back into the forest. I found the blackberry bushes and laid down. Looking up I hoped to see the birds, but they were gone.

I felt really sad. I missed Mom, just like everyone else did. But I didn’t have dreams like Joycie, or drive like Mitch, and I didn’t have a passion like Skit. I wanted all of those things but didn’t know where to find them.

I guessed Mom was my reason. I grew up and started to hunt because of her. I wanted to make her feel proud of me.

There was a puddle nearby and I looked at myself. Specks of dirt were flecked on my nose, and behind me the blackberry bushes loomed. When I was little Mom liked to play with the blackberries. She would pick them with her teeth and toss them to me, and I would try my best to catch them in-between my fangs. It was a fun game. Whenever I caught a blackberry she cheered. Looking back I realized she was teaching me to hunt. That was Mom for you, always looking out for her cubs.

But Mom was gone now and I had to deal with that. It was still summer and there was plenty of time for me to hunt and wander our home, looking for a new purpose. Maybe I should find a mate of my own and teach my own litter. I guessed that would be something.

But I couldn’t be certain a family would bring me closure. I was afraid of the future and all the unknowns, but I had my brothers and sister to rely on. I guessed life was scary.

But what did I know? After all, I was only a fox.

 


© Copyright 2019 Thaddeus Lenk. All rights reserved.

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